Winners and Losers of 2016 College Football Offseason
The last official college football game was in early January and the 2016 season is still a few weeks away, but the offseason is just about over. Congratulations, you've made it.
The offseason may seem interminably long for fans, but it can zip along quickly for those closely involved in the sport. With little on-field activity to focus on, anything that happens tends to stand out even more.
Here's a look at the players, coaches and teams that had the best and worst offseasons, based on the kind of news they made.
Winner: James Conner
It's one thing to come back from a major injury to play football again. It's another to do it while also battling a potentially fatal illness. But throughout James Conner's drive to return to the field, there's been nothing but positivity on his part, and that's paid off in the form of a promising prognosis for his future.
Conner led the ACC in rushing in 2014 as a sophomore and was poised for another big year last fall, but he tore the MCL in his right knee during the season opener. In December, he announced he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.
"I will play football again," Conner said at the time, per USA Today. "I will be at Heinz Field again. I have the best coaches and teammates in the country. I thank God I chose Pitt because now I also have the best doctors in the country and together we will win. I know this city has my back."
There's likely no team in the Football Bowl Subdivision more anxious to get the 2016 season started than Baylor, if only to get the focus back to football. But its tumultuous offseason may make it difficult to sustain its success of recent years because of a coaching shake-up and a thinned-out roster.
A sexual-assault scandal engulfed the school's athletic program, leading to the firing of football coach Art Briles, while athletic director Ian McCaw and chancellor Ken Starr both resigned. Former Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe has taken over on an interim basis, retaining the rest of the staff and promising to keep the Bears' uptempo offense intact, but the team has lost a number of players since Briles' dismissal.
Several members of Baylor's 2016 recruiting class received releases from their letters of intent and signed with other programs, while other players such as backup quarterbacks Jarrett Stidham and Chris Johnson have transferred.
"I think one of our biggest challenges playing this season and going forward is numbers," Grobe said at Big 12 media days, per FootballScoop.com's Zach Barnett. "I think we are at about 70 full-scholarship kids right now. We’re allowed 85, so our numbers are down."
Winner: Ambitious Group of Five Schools
The Big 12's will-they-or-won't-they flirtation with expansion took a surprise twist in July when the league's board of governors voted unanimously to explore adding two to four teams as soon as the 2017 season. Since then, it's felt like a never-ending stream of potential targets have come out of the woodwork to express their interest in moving from the Group of Five into a power conference.
Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, New Mexico, South Florida, Tulane and UCF have all been linked to the Big 12, according to Matt Brown and Jason Kirk of SB Nation, several in a quite public manner. Many schools have issued statements expressing their interest, with East Carolina going so far as to bill itself—through a handy graphic—as a "travel partner" to current member West Virginia. Governors from Texas and Utah have weighed in on the subject, and backdoor deals could also be in the works, according to Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman.
There's no official timetable for selecting teams, which could make this an offseason storyline that bleeds into the season. We could be rating schools' chances of landing a coveted spot in the Big 12 based on how they're performing each week.
Losers: Mississippi State and Ole Miss
Mississippi State and Ole Miss are in the midst of their best run of football ever, combining to win 38 games the past two seasons. The former spent several weeks atop the Associated Press poll in 2014, while the latter played in the Sugar Bowl last winter.
But all of that on-field success leads to great scrutiny when something off the field goes wrong, as both programs have experienced this offseason.
Mississippi State's optics have been blurred by the school's handling of incoming freshman Jeffery Simmons, a highly rated defensive end who was caught on camera striking a woman in March. In June, the school announced it was allowing him to enroll and be part of the football program "with conditions" that would include counseling and a one-game suspension.
MSU coach Dan Mullen took flak for how he handled questions about Simmons at SEC media days, saying, "I don't know if my family would be in that situation" when asked how he would feel if it were his wife or daughter involved in the video.
Ole Miss is in the middle of an NCAA investigation, with nine of the 13 allegations involving football coming during head coach Hugh Freeze's tenure. This includes several related to former offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, who missed time in 2015 while sitting out due to an NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits.
Winner: Jim Harbaugh
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh epitomizes the notion that there's no offseason for college football coaches. If he took a vacation, it was a short one, and it was likely chronicled in his eclectic array of tweets that are part of the brand Harbaugh has built since returning to the college game.
Harbaugh went to great lengths during the recruiting season to convince prospects to play for him (including sleepovers) and landed the No. 5 class, which included top overall player Rashan Gary. He put a new wrinkle into spring practice by taking the Wolverines to IMG Academy in Florida for a week of workouts, effectively turning offseason training into a recruiting tool.
Harbaugh was also at the forefront of the satellite camp movement. Michigan held dozens of camps across the country and Harbaugh chose a different sports jersey to wear at each. In between, there were various other public appearances, including ceremonial first pitches and pro wrestling matches, keeping Harbaugh and Michigan constantly in the news.
The away-from-football antics will diminish greatly now that preseason camp has begun, with Harbaugh trying to build off last year's surprising 10-3 performance. We'll see if all that offseason activity will pay off.
Loser: Kevin Sumlin
Kevin Sumlin arrived at Texas A&M in 2012 just as the program was making the move from the Big 12 to the SEC. After leading the Aggies to 11 wins and a Cotton Bowl victory (with a major assist from Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel), he was on the fast track to the top of the coaching ranks.
It's been mostly downhill ever since, with a pronounced dip this past offseason.
The Aggies' win total and offensive production have progressively declined under Sumlin, who saw his top two quarterbacks transfer from the program in the winter. Adding graduate transfer Trevor Knight from Oklahoma and hiring offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone from UCLA were major positives, but almost everything else this offseason has been a negative.
In particular, A&M's assistant coaches have caused the most problems. Wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead's subtweet following a 2017 recruit's decommitment led to further recruiting backlash, and Sumlin had to suspend offensive line coach Jim Turner and tight ends coach Jeff Banks last week after their embarrassingly sexist "Chalk Talk”" event geared toward female fans.
"The big loser of the offseason is Sumlin because, despite all the positive things that happened during the offseason...he just can't shake the stigma that his program is out of control," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote.
The Huskies were 4-6 midway through November, looking like a young team that was showing improvement but still had a long way to go. They then won their next three games by a combined score of 141-48 to finish with seven victories and plenty of offseason momentum.
Washington has continued to trend upward since then, landing the label of "dark horse" from many experts. And when the Amway Coaches Top 25 was released last week, Washington was ranked 18th, which is its highest preseason ranking since 2002.
Head coach Chris Petersen believes he has a good team, as it returns 15 starters, including quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. However, he believes the preseason attention is unwarranted.
"We have as much hype as the new Pokemon game that no one knows anything about but thinks it's really cool," Petersen said, per Chris Vannini of CoachingSearch.com. "That's us."
College football is an all-day (and night) experience on Saturdays in the fall. The action starts with ESPN's College GameDay preview show and often goes way past midnight on the East Coast thanks to games from the Mountain West and Pac-12 that kick off after 10 p.m. ET.
It can be an exhausting experience, but thankfully, those super-late games tend to produce wacky results, helping fans make it to the final whistle.
Sadly, though, the phenomenon that's become known as #Pac12AfterDark has been minimized for 2016, with the Pac-12 opting to reduce the number of night games. There were 33 games involving Pac-12 home teams that started at 7 p.m. or later locally in 2015, according to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, while this fall there will be as many as four fewer.
While some of those games still might start as late as 6 p.m. local time, which would be 8 or 9 p.m. ET, there's going to be less potential for late-night craziness. For fans who indulged in last year's Arizona State/California game that saw 37 points scored in the final 16 minutes and 31 seconds or the 2014 game between Cal and Arizona that ended with a Hail Mary touchdown catch, consider yourselves forewarned.
Winner: Mark Richt
Once Georgia sent him packing in November after 15 seasons and 145 victories, Mark Richt didn't waste any time getting back into the coaching business. Less than a week later, his alma mater, Miami (Florida), hired him, which reinvigorated the 55-year-old.
"My wife and I, we're going to put our lives into this program," he told reporters in February.
Since then, Richt has been making all the right moves to return the Hurricanes to national relevance, starting with a strong recruiting class. Season-ticket sales are up—Miami athletic director Blake James said Monday (h/t Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post) that more than 36,000 have been sold, up from 29,000 in 2015—and Richt's arrival has revived the school's long-desired hope for an indoor practice facility.
"Unfortunately we don't have it yet today, but we’re finalizing some details and we'll have a naming gift secured here in the near future and that’s something I hope we have in place for the April '18 season," James said, per 247Sports' Christopher Stock.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.